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Twenty Days with FoCT

Posted on Jun 11th, 2008 by

The courage and dignity that people can display in the face of adversity never ceases to amaze me, even after having worked for the UN for 10 years in some of the world’s most troubled places.

I was born into a relatively prosperous, middle class family in the UK, which placed me in the top 5% of the worlds privileged before I had taken my first breath.

For people like me, the rest of our lives are spent hovering between the top 10% and the top 1%, depending on how “successful” we are.

Today I visited a clinic on Lake Victoria that serves people in the bottom 10% on the world’s privilege scale. There I met Jacob, an eight year old boy with badly deformed clubbed feet. He’d walked 5kms with his Dad to reach the clinic, and had bad blisters on the sides of his feet which he walked on, instead of his soles.

His Dad openly told me that his wife died last year from AIDS, and that he had also recently tested positive. He said that on cold and wet days like today, he felt particularly unwell, but nevertheless he was determined to bring Jacob to the clinic in the hope of arranging an operation for him to correct the clubbed feet.

As well as being a widower, with a disabled son and suffering from HIV, his own health is deteriorating. He is less and less able to farm the land he owns, and so his incomes goes down from $50 per month to less than $30, pushing him a few points further down on the privilege scale.

Yet despite all this, this 36 year old man remained amazingly 'together', focused on trying to help Jacob have a better future. I imagined how I would cope if I was given his lot, and I decided that I would probably be a complete emotional wreck seeking solace in the bottle.

The Dad on the other hand perceived me as being someone who was very strong, but that’s only because of the education, employment and wealth that come so easily to someone at my end of privilege scale.

Then there’s Saidi. Saidi is a five year old boy who was born healthy and fit to two adoring parents. When he was 18 months old, he caught malaria which went cerebral, leaving him with permanent brain damage, unable to walk, talk or do any other basic things.

His mum became pregnant again in 2006, but died, together with the baby, due to complications in the delivery. After losing his wife and second child, Saidi’s Dad resolved to dedicate his efforts to looking after his son.

He works as a shoe shine, always accompanied by Saidi wherever he goes. It is clear that the only thing that really matters to Saidi is the presence of his father. FoCT has helped with a walking frame for Saidi and a pram, so that his Dad does not have to carry him everywhere on his back. His dad told me it has made an amazing difference to their lives, giving them at least some mobility.

Yesterday I took Saidi swimming. It was the first time he had ever been in water – and despite the initial screams, after a few minutes he seemed to really enjoy it. It costs $1 to swim in the pool; way beyond his dad’s budget, so FoCT have promised to cover Saidi’s swimming costs in the future.

My main preoccupation over the past 20 days has been to organise the construction of a recreation room come computer lab for Mugeza school for the disabled, just near Bukoba town. There are 80 disabled kids at the school, with varying degrees of severe physical and mental disabilities.

Although there are well built classrooms and dorms at the school, the dining room is far too small and there is nowhere for the kids to go and play when it is raining.

It rains a lot in Bukoba! In addition, the head teacher explained to me that 40 of the kids would greatly benefit from learning IT skills if they could get the facility. Well that’s where FoCT and Izaas come in.

FoCT has raised $30,000 to pay for the construction, so this week I have been shuttling between the school, the architect’s office and the council planning offices so that we can all agree on the appropriate design for the building. It looks like construction should get underway by July this year (2008).

Once the construction is completed, the next challenge will be to secure funds to furnish the building and to buy around 15 computers to equip the lab.

I’m sure FoCT will find a donor for this since it such a worthwhile thing that will completely change the future employment prospects for many of the school’s disabled kids.

Izaas is just one of many NGOs and community based organisations that are working in this area to provide support to vulnerable people. I’ve been to orphanages run by nuns, youth support programmes run by the community, and an old people’s home run by the Government.

It is in every sense, a collective effort. Izaas, which was established by a prominent local Muslim, works hand in hand with the Catholic and Lutheran Churches to support vulnerable children, the disabled and the sick.

Brother Giuseppe, an Italian Franciscan brother, works as a physiotherapist to help disabled children both before and after operations. Many of his patients are referred to him by Izaas. Izaas also supports Ntoma orphanage, run by the Lutherans, which cares for over 50 young, vulnerable kids.

The scourge of HIV-AIDS makes our collective challenge even more difficult. It compromises an individual’s capacity to earn a living and to struggle against all the other levels of vulnerability that people face.

The Government of Tanzania is fortunately implementing an anti-retroviral drug programme in this area, and this is certainly helping to stem the tide of sickness and death. But many people either do not know that they have HIV or simply leave it too late to seek treatment.

I also went to visit the Don Bosco centre to support orphans and vulnerable children near Muleba, about 50 miles from Bukoba. This is a truly inspiring project. Managed by the Sisters of Saint Anne, 270 orphaned and vulnerable kids, many of whom have lost their parents to AIDS and are looked after by their grandparents, come to the centre on a daily basis to get a good meal, to wash properly, to learn games, to talk to the sisters about problems they are facing and to learn practical skills such as small scale farming.

Most critically, the centre provides support to kids whose families cannot afford school fees, especially for the older children who complete primary school and then need to continue onto secondary education.

It costs just $200 per year to send a child to secondary school, and just $100 per year to primary. It costs $40,000 in total a year to run the centre, and the Sisters are in a constant struggle to find the funds.

Of course, the four nuns who run it are themselves not paid. Two of them are from India, and two come from the Bukoba area, and you can just see of their faces and on the faces of the kids that this centre is run with an incredible amount of love, care and strength of character.

As I always do in Bukoba, I also spent time at the Izaas child care and support programme. Over 80 vulnerable children, many of whom have been orphaned by HIV-AIDS and some of whom are themselves infected, come on Mondays to Fridays to the Izaas centre to receive additional tuition and to learn some of the religious guidance they would have received from their parents. The kids live at home with their extended families, often with grandparents, and FoCT and Izaas provides educational, medical and food support.

Perhaps even more importantly, FoCT and Izaas helps give the kids a sense of belonging and community – somewhere they can seek help if they are facing problems at home or at school, somewhere they go that gives them a routine.

I have also spent time finalising the agreement between FoCT, Izaas and the Rotary Jaipur Limb project. This project will create a centre that will provide false limbs to the many disabled people in Kagera region.

Currently, they have to travel across Lake Victoria to Mwanza or to Uganda to receive such support. FoCT and Izaas has reached an agreement with the Catholic Diocese of Bukoba to locate the centre at Kagondo hospital, some 30 km from Bukoba town. Here there is already an excellent orthopedic centre, so the patients will receive more holistic clinical care both before and after their prosthetics are fitted.

Once the limb centre is up and running, ongoing financial support will be essential to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable can benefit from the project.

So what else needs to be done? Firstly, fundraising. We cannot achieve anything out here without the generosity of people giving. It’s a very simple equation – the more people give, the more we can do.

Some funds are required for specific projects like the construction at the disabled school and the Jaipur Limb initiative, while others are needed to help people on an individual basis.

There is no such thing here as 'social security', where the state provides financial safety nets for the most vulnerable in society. Once you start falling down the social and economic ladder, there’s nothing to stop you, unless the community intervenes.

Average annual income in this area is around $300, so naturally there are limits on what communities can do, which throws the ball back into our court. Then it’s down to our own choice – do we choose to help or not?

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